(This is Part 6 of "The descent of national politics into irrelevance and insignificance: Can it be reversed?" The previous parts are found below.)
Open, Transparent and Accountable Government
The election of Barack Obama demonstrates how the face of politics has irrevocably changed. Thanks to technologies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, text-messaging and blogging, the traditional political party is now obsolete as supporters gather, mobilize, plan and share information in a virtual structure open to all.
But President Obama has not stopped there – his groundbreaking national interactive website, http://www.whitehouse.gov/, continues to build on the momentum gathered during his election and transition period. Among other things, http://www.whitehouse.gov/ offers immediate access to meaningful information on all current and planned legislative, regulatory and executive initiatives of the President, and facilitates connections via Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, iTunes, and MySpace. The openness this fosters is invaluable, despite the challenging constraint to limit comments to 500 characters or less.
Any Canadian political party with serious aspirations to form the next national government should sit up and take notice. The political party that adopts the national website approach to open transparent government will be more successful in transcending the geographic barriers and regional silos that constrain policy creativity and national initiative, and has the best chance of establishing a broad base of support among Canadians.
Employment Insurance reform
The next Parliament must undertake a complete reform of all aspects of Employment Insurance which is not operating as a useful safety net for the unemployed. Too many people have paid in and find that they are not eligible. The increasing numbers of part-time workers and the self-employed cannot participate. The complex patchwork of entry requirements across the country makes no sense with today’s rising unemployment. Job training provisions do not work well. And even for those who are eligible, benefits are exhausted quickly. Soon, we will witness an increase in Canadians on income assistance/welfare, straining already stretched provincial and municipal budgets.
In sum, the national EI program does not fulfill its basic national objectives – that of providing adequate income protection, economic stabilization and the preservation of the dignity of the unemployed. There needs to be national standards, where appropriate, as well as more effective training. We should implement innovative steps like wage insurance for those who suffer a drop in income, particularly while retraining, and increasing premium rates during times of low unemployment to tide us over when joblessness does rise.
Maternity and parental leave benefits, currently part of EI, need expanding and updating as well. Although some suggest that these benefits should not logically be part of EI (Don Drummond), they cannot be removed from the EI national program unless there is an agreed alternative national program in place. We must not forget that these benefits ended up under the EI umbrella in the first place because provinces were unwilling to collaborate sufficiently on a separate national program.
As the federal Conservatives and Liberals work on EI reform this summer, the premiers are yet again taking the initiative and putting forward proposals that must be considered. The premier of British Columbia has suggested the possibility of returning to a variation of the cost-shared approach to welfare as a way of easing what is expected to be an intolerable burden on provincial budgets as the unemployed exhaust benefits. He has also joined with western premiers to ask that eligibility for EI be reduced to three categories – urban, rural and remote.
The next Parliament must address the looming pension crisis. Currently 6 out of 10 Canadians have no private pension and only inadequate Canada Pension Plan benefits. Yet, as taxpayers, we are all picking up the tab for badly run private pension plans (e.g. GM).
Several models could be considered:
- expand the CPP – our largest and most efficient pension arrangement in the country – on a voluntary or mandatory basis so that it can gradually replace the underperforming RRSP industry,
- provide for voluntary employer and employee payments into supplemental CPP administered by the CPP Investment Board, like the regional plan now being developed by Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan for private sector workers.
A range of related issues must also be considered. One example would be to include provisions to allow women, who stay home to raise children, to continue to contribute to CPP during those years. A second example would be a national disability insurance benefit modeled on the Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and fully integrated with the CPP disability payments, the provincial Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and any other disability income programs.
Canada has no national coherence in post-secondary education (PSE): the annual education report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in October 2007 noted that Canada was unable to report figures for two-thirds of the information gathered by the other 39 countries covered in the survey. Dr. Paul Cappon, president of the Canadian Council of Learning, a non-governmental organization on lifelong learning, decries the fact that we do not know where the substantial amount of money transferred for PSE purposes is going. In contrast, the EU, Australia, Germany, Britain, and New Zealand, all establish nation-wide goals and objectives for their PSE institutions and align funding with national priorities.
Canada also lacks an effective national strategy to assure the full-range of PSE options to all qualified students. Twenty years ago, Canadian universities received $2000 more per student than their U.S. counterparts, but now receive $2000 less. Since 1993, Canada has won only 3 Nobel prizes, compared to California’s 18 since 1995.
Bold national leadership is required to implement a national strategy for PSE to ensure that our colleges and universities are up to the challenge and measure up to our competition, as well as implement an integrated system of grants, loans and credits to ensure talented students of families with financial difficulties are assured access to PSE institutions.
Public funding for two years of community college
Serious consideration must be given to whether the federal government should publicly fund two years of community college since so many twenty-first century jobs will require at least a couple of years of community college. Easy availability of ongoing community college training for employees in some U.S. states has proven an attractive incentive to location and expansion of leading edge technology companies.
Research and development
We must also find ways once and for all to increase the abysmally low levels of research and development by Canadian businesses, and provide enough committed long-term public finance for basic scientific research that will foster free-ranging scientific innovation. This will spur everything from medical breakthroughs on cancer and the environmental causes of ill-health, to discoveries of greater energy efficiency and waste reduction (like the process of separating oil from water, discovered by the 2009 Polanyi research grant recipient), to new batteries that store electricity for transportation, wind and solar generation, safer cell phone technology, and the elimination of toxins in our food, our water, and our air.
The foregoing eclectic discussion is designed to sketch out the great scope of possibilities available to a reinvigorated national Parliament under new leadership. And there are countless topics equally in need of national attention and serious debate:
Taxes: As we face a growing deficit and debt, can we have intelligent national debate on the need for adequate new revenues to pay for investment and public services, not the least of which is our obligation to ensure the needs and concerns of aboriginal Canadians? Besides GST adjustments (including harmonization with the remaining provincial sales taxes) and a possible carbon levy, we need to consider possibilities as varied as a financial transactions tax – even a minimal 0.25% levy on the sale or transfer of stocks, bonds and financial assets, would be progressive and relatively lucrative – as well as a tax on soft drinks promoted by a few American states.
Child Poverty: On the social safety net front, could we take at least a first step to remove children from social assistance benefit structures as part of reducing poverty in Canada? This goal would require streamlining and enhancing the four federal-provincial income assistance programs – the Child Tax Benefit, the National Child Benefit Supplement, the Universal Child Care Benefit and the various provincial child benefits.
Senate reform: Could we examine serious reform to the Senate of Canada with vigorous public debate and input, not Mr. Harper’s reform by stealth? A reformed Senate could be designed to give provinces a stronger voice in the development of national standards and objectives in the parliamentary centre, rather than shouting too often confrontationally from the fringes through the Council of the Federation.
Canada’s global influence: Can we have intelligent national debate over bolstering Canada’s global influence within the G-20 and other global forums? We should pay close attention to the observations of former diplomat Gordon Smith, that Canada is fortunate to be part of the G-20, scraping in with barely 2% of global GDP or population (our land mass does not count). At the recent G-20 summit in London, Britain consigned Canada to the second tier in terms of communications strategy (which perhaps explains why our Prime Minister was ‘in the loo’ during the official photo of the leaders). And Canada should really not be part of the G-8 today – by some measures, Canada and Italy should logically be replaced by China and India, except that China and India are now holding separate BRIC summits with Russia and Brazil as of June 2009. Among other things, as host of the G-8 summit in 2010, Smith suggests that Canada take vigorous steps to transform it into a G-20 Summit in order to be able to play a central role in reshaping global rules and institutions.
The critical issue, even if any of the suggestions for national leadership and initiative set out in this series of blog entries are pursued, is: will Canadians’ interest in the governance of our country actually be revived? Quebecers are particularly disinterested after years of Bloc Québécois dominance and what La Presse editor André Pratt calls ‘separating without separation’. Polls show that 60% of Quebecers still believe provincial demandeurs, both federalist and separatist, that Quebec needs more provincial autonomy in fields like culture, health, higher education and language despite the fact that Quebec has near complete provincial control of these fields. It will take exceptional effort to persuade Quebecers to consider the Canadian national interest again.
The future of Canada depends more than ever on new bold and visionary national leadership that understands both the poetry and practice of politics. We need inspiration to revive our collective imagination once again, and pursue national initiatives for the benefit of all Canadians.